Thor: Love and Thunder

Posted on July 7, 2022 at 8:10 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, action, language, partial nudity and some suggestive material
Profanity: S-words, mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, characters injured, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 8, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 26, 2022

Copyright 2022 Disney
Taika Watiti’s sly, understated. offbeat humor is a great match for Thor, a superhero who is literally a god with a post British accent. Thor could come across as stiff and stuffy if not for the combination of Watiti and Chris Hemsworth, who has the rare ability to be effortlessly hilarious while still being a completely believable superhero god. I’ve often said that superhero movies are made or lost based on the villains, not the heroes. On that basis, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is less successful. But it is so much fun along the way, and often genially goofy, two words that don’t usually apply to superhero movies, that it is satisfyingly entertaining.

The last time we saw Thor he was looking more like The Big Lebowski than a god of Asgard and his planet had been destroyed. He pulled himself together for “Avengers: Endgame” and New Asgard is now up and running under the rule of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Thor spends his days in quiet contemplation until he is called upon to save the world again, which he does with brio and then returns to his solitude. Asgard is a quaint little town by the water and has become a favorite tourist destination. One popular attraction is the re-enactment of some of the highlights of Asgardian history, with performers played by Matt Damon and Luke Hemsworth plus two I won’t spoil).

Meanwhile, Thor’s ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has Stage 4 cancer. And somehow she is called to or by the legendary Mjolnir, the once-shattered hammer that has re-assembled itself like the silvery guy in “Terminator 2.” This makes her into Thor, apparently in addition to, not instead of the Thor who was named by his father, Odin. One of the most endearingly goofy elements of the film is the way original Thor’s new weapon, the axe called Stormbreaker, is sensitive and a bit worried about its predecessor returning. Original Thor is better at sharing his feelings with his weapons than he is with human beings. I predict that Brene Brown will be using clips from this movie to illustrate future lectures about the importance of vulnerability.

And then, the bad guy. Christian Bale plays Gorr, who we first see as a devoted acolyte in a destroyed world. He has lost everything, including his daughter, but believes in the salvation and afterlife his religion has promised. When he learns that his god cares nothing for humans and there is no eternal life he grabs the Necrosword and the combination of grief, anger, betrayal, and the sword’s magic turns him into something of a Terminator of his own (though looking more like zombie Voldemort), with just one imperative — killing all the gods.

The action scenes are great fun and there are a lot of delightful small details you might miss the first time through, but is it the humor, the characters, and the warmth of their connection that stand out. Watiti returns as Thor’s sidekick Korg, his quiet, tentative voice an amusing counterpart to his enormous rock body. In the vast assemblage of gods, Russell Crowe appears as a lightning bolt-throwing Zeus. Thompson and Portman have great chemistry and Hemsworth is as good at comedy as he is at looking like a Norse god, which is as good as it gets. Korg tells us that coming out of his depression, Thor went from dad bod to god bod. It is good to see him here going from sad guy to, well, you’ll see.

NOTE: Stay through the end of the credits to see two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this movie has many s-words and extended peril and comic-book style action violence with many characters injured, cancer treatment, and a sad death. There is also a brief flash of rear nudity.

Family questions: What would you choose for your catch phrase? How do you make sure you don’t wall off your feelings after being hurt?

If you like this, try: the other “Thor” movies and Watiti’s “What We Do in the Shadows” film and television series

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Lucy in the Sky

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:34 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and threats of violence, gun
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019

In 2007 a female astronaut furiously jealous because the male astronaut she was sleeping with was also sleeping with someone else, drove from Texas to Florida with the intention of attacking the other woman. “Lucy in the Sky” tells us it is inspired by a true story, and while it draws some of its details from what really happened, there is very little inspiration evident on screen.

Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, who has made up for the chaos and dysfunction of her family by being competitive and ultra-capable. Her mother drank, her father was a deadbeat, her brother is an irresponsible single dad who disappears now and then, leaving his teenage daughter with Lucy and her husband (Dan Stevens). Lucy is intensely competitive, always keeping her eye on triumphing over whatever challenge is next. “You’ll just have to work harder,” the grandmother who raised her (Ellen Burstyn) advises, and we can tell that is her standard advice. She has succeeded at everything because she refuses to stop until she does.

We first see her floating in space. Ordered to return to the ship, she insists on a little more time to absorb the vastness of the universe. (With “Ad Astra,” this is the second film in a month to show us a personal and existential crisis in outer space.)

On her return, Lucy is in that most mundane of ordinary tasks, waiting in the carpool lane to pick up her niece at school. She has a routine debriefing with a counselor (Nick Offerman) who gently asks her whether the experience was disturbing. He quotes Apollo 11’s Michael Collins, who wept as he piloted the rocket behind the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic landing. He was “consumed by darkness” and said he was profoundly alone. “It’s hard to put into words,” Lucy says. But she liked it and wants to go back.

He urges her to take a break. “Can you stop?” But she only knows how to achieve mission objectives. Without a fixed mission, her mind starts spinning.

And then, another astronaut invites her to go bowling with others in “the club” — those who have looked at Earth from outer space and have had their perspective permanently changed. He is Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), recently separated and a bit of a mess, unlike Lucy’s stable, sweet, hand-holding-grace-before-meals husband (Dan Stevens). They have an affair. And then things spin out of control. And so does the movie.

There might be an intriguing story here about how seeing things from a — literally — broader perspective could make someone rethink choices and priorities or how the pressure of being perfect can stem from deep insecurities which can cause distortion and collapse. This film touches on all of that but we keep being distracted by Portman’s efforts at a cornpone accent, some camera tricks with the aspect ratio of the frame, and shifts in tone. The actors do their considerable best, but at times they seem to be acting in different movies. The overly cutesy idea of naming the character Lucy so that The Beatles song can play on the soundtrack is jarring and out of place.

The story could have made a pretty good Lifetime television film, a soapy melodrama starring some third-tier actors. Instead, it is an awkward, wildly uneven film that shoots for the stars — quite literally — and falls far short.

Parents should know that this film include very strong language, some peril and threats of violence, sexual references and a brief explicit situation.

Family discussion: Why was Lucy so different from her parents and brother? How did being in space affect her? What did it mean to be “in the club?”

If you like this, try: “Ad Astra” and “The Martian”

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Annihilation

Posted on February 22, 2018 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, many grisly and disturbing images, animal attacks, guns, explosives, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 28, 2018
Copyright Paramount 2018

Annihilation” is based on the Nebula Award-winning first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, adapted by director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”). Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and Army veteran, who joins a group of woman investigating an ominous anomaly the government is calling the shimmer. It looks like an rainbow prismed oil spill in the air. An area around a lighthouse is glowing and oscillating. Is it aliens? Is it God? Is it dangerous? Well, take a look at the title of the movie.

Whatever it is, it is expanding rapidly, posing a threat to pretty much everywhere. “The silence around it is louder than usual,” one observer notes. All missions, manned and unmanned, to investigate have produced no information and no human or drone sent inside has come back. Until one, an Army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband. A year after he left, he shows up at their home, dazed and critically ill.

And so Lena joins the next group going inside, along with Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist leading the team, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, and Josie (Tessa Thompson), a shy physicist. The film is told in flashback, as Lena is being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, so we know that she will be the only one of the group to survive. We know what happened. We will see how.

The New Yorker calls VanderMeer “the King of Weird Fiction” and the Southern Reach trilogy “arresting, unsettling, and unforgettable” and “meditations on the theme of epistemic pessimism, in the tradition of Kafka.” I think what that means is that many science fiction and fantasy writers, even the most imaginative and compelling, base their stories on extrapolating what is already here, whether apocalyptic destruction of the planet due to environmental neglect or aliens who are a reflection of whatever geopolitical issues we are struggling with.

Generally, though, the fundamental rules, the ones we take for granted so much we are not even aware we are taking them for granted, apply, including the rules of dramatic fiction that go back thousands of years. Hubris invites catastrophe. Bad guys want to control everything. Courage and honor triumph. VanderMeer, let’s just say, goes another way. Instead of taking what we have and know and projecting it in a more extreme form, he takes what we have and know and bends reality — and our minds — to make us think about how much we do not know. Inter-species mutations are occuring, suggesting that the shimmer somehow dissolves what we think of as immutable barriers, the ones that define our sense of the world and our sense of ourselves. “It’s literally not possible,” a team member says. “It’s literally what’s happening,” another responds.

One of the first questions we hear at the beginning of the film, as Lena is being something between interrogated and debriefed, is “What did you eat?” Her group had rations for two weeks but survived for months. “I don’t remember eating,” she says. Later we will see the group, dazed, trying to remember what has happened and trying to figure out how much time has gone by based on how much food is gone. They do not know where they are or how long they have been there. Their communications technology does not work. Even the most basic technology, a compass directed only by the magnetism of the North Pole, does not work. They are literally disoriented. The women are there because of their expertise in science, but they cannot even manage some of the most fundamental cognitive tasks. They are not sure whether they cn trust each other. They are there to observe and report but they cannot trust their perceptions or analysis.

And we may not be able to trust our own. This movie puts its cards on the table with an opening that reveals the end. This will be an escape room/haunted house set in the wilds of the Florida swamp story with Lena as the “final girl,” the last woman standing. “It all goes back to the first cell,” we hear Lena tell her class of biology students. Cells do not die; they reproduce. Everything alive is a piece of the first cell. As the women on this mission have to decide whether they want to understand or fight the shimmer, another option presents itself.

Garland uses luscious, even seductive visuals in the verdant Florida swamp setting to beguile and horrify us, sometimes both at once. This is more than mind-bending; it is mind-expanding, something of an intellectual shimmer creating a cognitive distortion of its own.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some very grisly and disturbing images, guns, grenade, fire, suicide, animal attacks, some strong language, and explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: Why did Lena say she owed it to Kane to go on the mission? Why didn’t she tell the other women about her relationship to Kane? What would you do if you were in charge of containing the Shimmer? What is the relationship of this story to Lena’s lecture about cells?

If you like this, try: “Arrival,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Solaris,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Midnight Special,” and “Coherence”

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Natalie Portman Plays Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie”

Posted on September 22, 2016 at 3:29 pm

Oscar-winner Natalie Portman plays Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie,” which was featured at the Toronto Film Festival and has been picked up for theatrical release. Director Pablo Larraín retells this story of the young First Lady, only 34 when she entered the White House. Her grace and poise and elegance made her an instant icon. Structuring his film around Theodore H. White’s LIFE magazine interview with the First Lady, just a week after the assassination of her husband, it covers her return to the White House, arrangements for the President’s funeral, and accompanying her husband’s coffin to Arlington Cemetery. The Chilean filmmaker told Vanity Fair he would not have considered making the film without Portman.

“All the films I made before, like Neruda, are movies about male characters,” explains the filmmaker. “So I had to connect with things I never connected before and I did it in a very personal way. . .I talked to my mother , and, from the international worldwide aspect, Kennedy was like the one and only queen that lived in this country. . .a queen without a throne.”

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